New York, United States – Talks between US President Barack Obama and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif are set to cover everything from safety fears about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to the war in Afghanistan and competition between India and China.
But few analysts predict any breakthroughs at the White House on Thursday.
“In this dysfunctional relationship, both the US and Pakistan have interests and expectations that the other cannot deliver on,” Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told Al Jazeera.
“We should have very limited expectations for this visit.”
This month, US newspapers revealed details of closed-door talks between the US and Pakistan on how Islamabad could allay fears that its growing nuclear arms programme will not lead to weapons or technology falling into the wrong hands.
Pakistan is estimated to possess 100-120 nuclear warheads, slightly more than its neighbour India. Those two nations have fought two of their three wars over Muslim-majority Kashmir since they split up in 1947.
According to a study by Carnegie Endowment of International Peace and the Stimson Center in August, Islamabad is boosting production so as not to be outgunned by its bigger, richer rival to the southeast.
“Pakistan is widely perceived to have the fastest-growing nuclear weapons arsenal in the world,” David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a research body, told Al Jazeera.
“This has sparked concerns about an increase in the chance that a miscalculation could lead to nuclear war in South Asia, and about the adequacy of the security over these weapons and stocks of nuclear explosive materials against theft by terrorists.”
Many of Pakistan’s nuclear arms are under lock and key, with warheads stored apart from their delivery systems. Of greater concern are its smaller, tactical nuclear weapons, which can be transported for use on battlefields and could more easily be snatched by a rogue commander.
According to The New York Times, US officials aim to limit Islamabad’s nuclear weapons programme in exchange for relaxed rules on nuclear-related imports to Pakistan, possibly allowing it to join the 48-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, which regulates the sale of that technology.
This could resemble parts of a US-India deal from 2005 that enabled New Delhi to buy civilian nuclear technology without incurring limits on its atomic arms programme. Any deal with Pakistan is expected to include curbs on its nuclear weapons.
Neither India nor Pakistan has signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Islamabad’s record is tainted by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the founder of its nuclear project, who allegedly ran an atomic technology black market that included Iran, North Korea and Libya.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Sharif and US Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the nuclear question during their meeting on Wednesday.
“We believe that they believe in the importance of nuclear security issues,” he told reporters.
The India factor
For Christine Fair, a Georgetown University scholar, the Obama administration’s effort to negotiate with Pakistan on nuclear technology is “clandestine” and raises “red flags” because it is unclear exactly what enticements the US is offering.
“In terms of viability, it’s dead in the water,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Pakistan wants to be in the position of India, which made no concessions. But India was in a different place and doesn’t use its nuclear umbrella to engage in terrorism and hasn’t engaged in a global black market of nuclear technology and assets.”
Analysts point to burgeoning US-India ties and meetings between Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an effort to ward off China’s rise in Asia, but one that also leaves Pakistan sidelined.
Pakistan is “extremely sensitive” to that relationship and fears it will lose influence in the disputed Kashmir region, Madiha Afzal, an analyst at the Brookings Institution think-tank, told Al Jazeera.
“Pakistan thinks India is being heavy handed in not wanting to engage on Kashmir and only wanting to talk about terror,” she said. “Pakistan likely feels that India’s good relationship with the US gives India the boost and additional leverage to be heavy handed.”
Tom Hussain, an Islamabad-based editor with The World Weekly, said this could undermine talks. “India is making big leaps forward with its nuclear technology programme, so Sharif will be reluctant to negotiate any limitations on its nuclear weapons capability,” he told Al Jazeera.
Influence over the Taliban
Obama is also expected to push Sharif for support in a campaign against the Afghan Taliban, following the group’s victory in capturing Kunduz in September and holding the northern city until a counter-attack by Afghan troops backed by US special forces and air power.
Last week, Obama admitted Afghan forces were not ready to stand alone against the insurgents and reversed his pledge to pull US forces out of the country. He has now committed to keeping a 9,800-strong force there through much of next year.
The US sees Pakistan as one of the few sources of influence over the Taliban. Islamabad was once the group’s main sponsor and protector, but nominally cut ties with it following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US.
Afghan officials accuse Islamabad of allowing the group to launch raids in Afghanistan before melting back across the border. US officials suspect the Taliban still receives support from Pakistani officials, particularly the Haqqani network of insurgents.
“Obama and the Afghan government are desperate for a political solution to bring an end to the bloodshed in Afghanistan,” said Kugelman. “In US eyes, Pakistan is the key. But it has provided untold amounts of money and arms to Pakistan and has little to show for it.”
Pakistan has received more than $20bn in aid and military support from the US these past 15 years.
Under pressure from the US, it launched a military offensive against insurgents in its northwestern tribal areas last year and brokered the first set of direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in July.
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“Pakistan may be willing to work towards a nuclear monitoring mechanism and to use its leverage with the Afghan Taliban to lessen the violence in Afghanistan,” Junaid Ahmed, a law and politics scholar at Lahore University, told Al Jazeera.
“But in return it will want Washington to halt its tilt towards India and see American support for addressing the Kashmir question; which would of course dampen the blossoming relationship between the US and India.”
Other analysts such as Aparna Pande of the Hudson Institute think-tank advise Obama to use sticks rather than carrots.
“Despite dealing with Pakistan for decades, some Americans still believe they can change Islamabad’s behaviour,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Pakistan needs to change its militarised national mind-set and is more likely to reform under fear of international isolation than in response to praise based on falsehoods.”
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